Citizen Kane, dir. Orson Welles, 1941
Here at Second Story, we consider ourselves storytellers. But not so fast: Let’s look at that term, storyteller. When I tell my daughter a story, I’m controlling a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and (if I can think of one) an ending. If I make a movie or put on a play or write a novel, it’s not a stretch to say I’m telling a story. Even a poster tells a story in the sense that it conveys a message. Graphic design is a good example of this interpretation of “story”: By selecting photos, writing some copy, and crafting a layout, we can say that we’re telling a client’s story.
In all of these examples, the story is controlled by an author or authors. The reader or listener or viewer or audience consumes the same thing.
Yes, but what is the story the reader (or listener or viewer or audience) digests? Mid-century post-structuralist theory proclaimed the death of the author. Reader-response criticism taught us that readers bring volumes of their own individual life experiences, beliefs, hopes, prejudices to a narrative. The reader creates the meaning in his own head.
The implications are staggering, even for a novelist or a filmmaker. You create a linear experience, work hard to control every variable, but you yourself are irrelevant. Your reader is thinking of his father. Your audience is in a bad mood and sees your comedy as terribly sad. But think of the challenges when we’re creating interactive experiences, and the path through content isn’t linear anymore. Principal and Creative Director Brad Johnson has described his philosophical approach thusly: “We provide the characters, the stage, music, information, imagery, and atmosphere that visitors use to weave their own story. The narrative is only visible in hindsight, when we piece together the visitor’s path through our work—the path that was their history, their story. This is the second story.”
That’s right: We have to be more honest about this than linear storytellers. But we also don’t pretend that we don’t have real control over the visitor’s experience. Those characters, the stage, the music, the information, everything is considered carefully at the start. Each element is an individual storytelling opportunity, but what’s really exciting is when we think strategically about the visitor or user experience.
I like to think in terms of conceptual vistas. These are metaphorical sightlines between areas of an non-linear experience that might not seem immediately to have a connection. In a movie, this might be done with color or a recurring object, like a sled representing innocence (spoiler alert). In a book, we call it foreshadowing.
We are often telling stories to visitors that are moving through physical spaces, being influenced by the architecture, exhibit graphics, video, audio, and interactives. And we’re often working with partners like exhibit designers or media producers. We look at possible visitor paths through an experience, consider every variable from emotional to informational content. Then we can seed design motifs, metaphorical themes, turns of phrase, images, type treatments, that can encourage visitors to make connections.
We’ve been working on developing media for a historical museum. We’re working with the exhibit designers, museum staff, and scholars to craft both animated films and interactive experiences that support the stories at strategic moments in the visitor path. The exhibit is chronological, but we don’t know what people will stop and look at. We don’t know how long they’ll be in the space. But we do know what the main attractions will be and the important information and most emotional content that will constitute the climax of the museum experience, so we’re looking for ways to refer to those words and images in our units, which come earlier, to maximize the educational and emotional impact later.
One of the highest intellectual pleasures is to recognize similarity in the dissimilar. If we can get visitors to do that, we are crafting a story where there is no linear narrative.
— Scott Smith